healer

Art and the Healing Power of Dreams by Chris Hall

Bronze head of Morpheus, Greek god of Dreams.

Bronze head of Morpheus, Greek god of Dreams.

“Physician, heal yourself:  thus you will heal your patient too.”  Friedrich Nietzsche.

“It is only by retaining and enhancing the original power of the image that the artist can take back his or her role as a redeemer and healer of the psyche from the theologian.”  Ann McCoy.

Many modern and (some) contemporary artists are aware of the power that dreams can have on healing the psyche.  In the Western culture, however, we have stepped away from dream analysis as a tool for healing, viewing it as irrational nonsense, favoring instead physical medicine, psychiatric drugs.  But dreaming can be more than a reflection of our fears and desires (the domain of Sigmund Freud). Dreaming can be a shamanic technology.  Dreams can be used for healing, guidance, and power — the classic domains of shamanism (championed by Carl Jung).  Jung considers the dream to be a vital and natural expression of the unconscious psychic process, and an X-ray of not only what is going on inside us individually, but also collectively within our culture.  Dreams are made up of a matrix of symbols, and as such, can be deciphered and analyzed.  The West hasn't always eschewed the power of dreams.  The Bible is full of episodes where dreams are used as signs to guide people on a proper course of action., from the psychopomp Joseph who correctly interprets the Pharaoh's dreams, thus avoiding starvation from a future famine, to Saint Joseph, Mary's husband, whose dreams foretold of consequences (the Massacre of the Innocents) if they did not flee with the Christ child to Egypt.  But dreams can do more than predict the future, they can also heal.  The ancient Greeks knew this well.  

Joseph interpreting Pharaoh's dream.

Joseph interpreting Pharaoh's dream.

In ancient Greek culture, dreams had a special significance.   The Greeks had not one, but three gods responsible for dreaming, and several other accessory gods to help produce the conditions necessary for dream to take place.  First and foremost were the three gods known as the Oneiroi (meaning Dreams).  Morpheus was the god of dreams, specializing in projecting human forms.  It is from his name that we derive the name morphine.  Phobetor was the god of nightmares, who excelled at projecting images of birds, beasts, and serpents.  We get the word phobia, “fear,” from his name.  Phantasos was the god of false dreams and illusions who was an expert at projecting the landscape, and things made of earth, rock, water, or wood.  From Phantasos we get the word phantom.  The father of the Oneiroi was Hypnos, the god of Sleep.  We derive the word hypnosis, meaning “sleep condition,” from the Greeks.  The Roman name for Hypnos is Somnus, from where we derive “somnambulism” (sleep walking) and insomnia (the inability to sleep).  Hypnos' wife, Pasithea, is the goddess of hallucination and relaxation.  Hypnos' twin brother is Thanatos, the god of Death, or the eternal sleep.  Hypnos' parents are Erebus, the god of Darkness, and Nyx, the goddess of Night.  Together they live in a mansion in a cave, where they never see the rising or the setting of the sun.  At the entrance to the cave grows a number of poppies and other hypnotic plants.  Their home doesn't have a door or gate, so that they might not be awakened by a creaking hinge.  The underworld river Lethe, known as the river of forgetfulness, flows through the cave.

Saint Joseph dreaming.

Saint Joseph dreaming.

Jungian psychologist Carl Alfred Meier tells us that “the Greeks, especially in the early period, regarded the dream as something that really happened; for them it was not, as it was in later times and to 'modern man' in particular, an imaginary experience.  The natural consequence of this attitude was that people felt it necessary to create the conditions that caused dreams to happen.”  To induce these dreams, the ancient Greeks would go to one of the thousands of temples dedicated to Asclepius, the Greek god of Medicine, hoping that their dreams might prescribe a healing course of action for everything from chronic pain, sexual dysfunction, and spiritual malaise.  These healing temples, called Asclepieia, were set in beautiful natural surroundings, often near a cave or a spring (the home of the Oneiroi and the source of Asclepius' healing powers).  

An Asclepius temple in Rome.

An Asclepius temple in Rome.

Asclepius, the god of Medicine, is the son of Apollo.  Asclepius' daughters Hygieia (health and cleanliness), Panacea (universal remedy), Iaso (recuperation from illness), Aceso (healing), and Aglaea (Beauty - yes beauty is important to healing and well-being) helped him in his practice.  The original Hippocratic Oath, used to swear in doctors up to the 1960's, began with the invocation "I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods ..." The rod of Asclepius, a snake-entwined staff, is still used as a symbol of medicine today.  Apollo (himself known as a healer) carried the baby Asclepius to the centaur Chiron (Sagittarius) who raised him and instructed him in the art of medicine.  It is also said that in return for some kindness shown by Asclepius, a wise snake licked Asclepius' ears clean and also taught him secret healing knowledge  The Greeks believed snakes were sacred beings of wisdom, healing, and resurrection.  Today the non-venomous Mediterranean serpent, the Aesculapian Snake (Zamenis longissimus), is named for the god.  

Asclepius mosaic.

Asclepius mosaic.

Asclepius became so proficient as a healer that he eventually surpassed both Chiron and his father, Apollo.  Ascelpius was even able to raise the dead.  This caused a population boom, which displeased Hades, who had a lack of fresh souls in his kingdom.  Hades complained to his brother, Zeus, and Zeus resorted to killing off Asclepius in order to regain a balance.  After Asclepius' death, Zeus placed his body among the stars as the constellation Ophiuchus the Serpent Holder (acknowledged as the 13th sign in the zodiac).  Some sources, however, state that Zeus later resurrected Asclepius in order to prevent a feud with Apollo, but only on the condition that Asclepius never revive the dead without his approval again.  

Asclepius healing a sick girl.

Asclepius healing a sick girl.

Patients at an Asclepieia would first purify themselves in the gardens outside the temple, often leaving token votive offerings called pinakes.  Many of these pinakes were clay depictions of the body parts to be healed, everything from hands and feet, arms and legs, breasts and genitals, eyes and ears, and heads.  Patients would spend days, sometimes weeks, outside the temple before being let into the inner sanctum, the dream incubation chamber called the abaton.  Many abatons, like the one in the Asclepieia  Epidaurus, were located underground, in a labyrinth, symbolizing the dark and mysterious place where dreams come from, or a journey to the depths of the unconscious.  Here the injured or sick would sleep and pray in the chamber while non-venomous snakes sacred to Asclepius would slither around the temple floor unmolested.  The purpose of the incubation rite was to induce a vivid, ecstatic dream, a mantike atechnos or “artificial mania,” from which a dream interpreter might prescribe a course of action.

Pinakes from an Asclepieia.

Pinakes from an Asclepieia.

Sometimes the process of inducing a mantike atchnos would take days.  To help induce the healing dream, priests and priestesses would employ a number techniques.  First, the beds used in the ritual, called klines, were more like couches than beds, with a stone headrest encouraging the clients to elevate their heads and sleep on their backs.  It is thought by many that this sleep position encourages active dreaming.  Patients were also given powerful soporific drugs, such as opium in order to promote sleep and dreams.  Being underground, in constant total darkness, also disrupts circadian rhythms.  Light sleep, with more awakenings and a longer REM stage is the result, leading to powerful lucid dreaming.  Priests and priestesses would also whisper into the ears of the sleeping in order to facilitate dreaming.  Today we know that dreams can successfully incorporate sounds and suggestions into the dream narrative, as well as smells.  It would seem that the result of all of these techniques, used in combination, produces vivid dreams, if not realistic hypnagogic hallucinations.  

Mosaic of a dreamer at an Asclepieia.

Mosaic of a dreamer at an Asclepieia.

Asclepieia dream incubation chambers must have been powerful places.  These places were designed to produce dreams  providing healing wisdom as well as instant cures - and if we are to believe the boasts of ancient graffiti, they were successful.  Successful cures were also honored with inscriptions on the sanctuary walls, advertisement for future patients.  The Greeks believed that healing is holistic enterprise.  Life vitality comes as a result exercise and proper diet, but also spiritual practice and mindful study.  In the Western culture today, the first two are now the exclusive domain of the physician, while the later (and too often neglected) is a role being filled by theologians and artists.  But as the role of dreams in our life are continually being downplayed in contemporary religious practices, mirroring the advance of scientific rational thought, the mantle should be picked up more by artists.  In this regard, artists ought to be considered professional dreamers and even dream interpreters, like the shamans of old.  Through our art we should hope to not only heal ourselves, but also the world at large.  

"... in dreams we put on the likeness of that more universal, truer, more eternal man dwelling in the darkness of primordial night. There it is still the whole, and the whole is in him, indistinguishable from nature and bare from all egohood. Out of these all-uniting depths arises the dream, be it never so infantile, never so grotesque, never so immoral.”  Carl Jung.

Anselm Kiefer by Chris Hall

Anselm Kiefer, The Starry Heavens Above Us, The Moral Law Within, 1969/2010

Anselm Kiefer, The Starry Heavens Above Us, The Moral Law Within, 1969/2010

Art is difficult, it’s not entertainment.  Anselm Kiefer  

To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.  Theodor Adorno


Born just a few months before the end of World War II in 1945, Kiefer grew up among the ash and ruins of postwar Germany.  Kiefer’s work directly addresses Adorno’s statement, that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” and questions how beauty and culture can continue to have any meaning.  Kiefer also wants to understand how the Nazis leveraged art and culture into killing.  In this respect, Kiefer’s body of work is primarily reflective of the new German word Vergangenheitsbewältigung.  Invented in the late 1950’s, Vergangenheitsbewältigung translates roughly as “struggle to come to terms with the past.”  Kiefer believes that one can not progress into the future until the past has been properly dealt with.  Although much of his early work addresses issues specific to Germany, his output in more recent years has expanded into more universal concerns.

Anselm Kiefer began making work in 1969 and would become a student of Joseph Beuys.  Kiefer’s first opus, his Occupations, had him traveling around to different sites in Europe, sometimes in his father’s Army uniform, and then having himself photographed giving the Nazi salute.  It may seem a bit shocking, but there is a moral heart to Kiefer’s work.  Kiefer wants to ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust remain fresh in collective memory.

Some of Kiefer's Occupations. Click to enlarge the images.

In his paintings and sculpture, Kiefer reexamines German history, mythology, and culture, everything from Wagner operas, German Romanticism, the poetry of Holocaust survivor Paul Celan, the architecture of Albert Speer, and the Third Reich, but he also references theology, occult symbolism, alchemy, mysticism, and the Kabbalah.   The weighty subject matter is often mirrored in the physicality of the works itself, which are often large scale and monumental.  Epic in size and scope, Kiefer’s work become visions of the apocalyptic sublime.  His paintings are mixed media endeavors, dense and heavy with impasto paint mixed with straw, dried flowers and plants, lead, sand, broken glass, ash, clay, shellac, gold leaf, copper wire, rusted metal, broken ceramics, woodcuts, charred photographs, and wood.  Kiefer uses a variety of application and reduction techniques, including a blowtorch.  

Some of Kiefer's early work.  Click to enlarge the image.

In the 1990’s Kiefer’s focus grew from focusing on Germany’s role in civilization to the fate of art and culture in general.  He began to explore universal myths of existence about the trauma experienced by all societies, from inevitable destruction to continued renewal and rebirth.  By examining the past, Kiefer seeks personal, national, and universal healing and absolution of collective guilt.  In 1999 the Japan Art Association awarded Kiefer the Praemium Imperiale for this lifetime achievements.  The explanatory statement reads:  

Kiefer worked with the conviction that art could heal a traumatized nation and a vexed, divided world . . . Only a few contemporary artists have such a pronounced sense of art's duty to engage the past and the ethical questions of the present, and are in the position to express the possibility of the absolution of guilt through human effort.

Some of Kiefer's later work.  Click to enlarge the image.

Kiefer is known for keeping giant studio complexes which he turns into site specific monuments with his painting and sculpture.  Most recently Kiefer purchased the decommissioned Mulheim-Karlich nuclear reactor plant.  In 2010 Kiefer’s studio in Barjac, France was the subject of a documentary called Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow.  The 35 hectare studio complex was built in the ruins of an abandoned silk factory.  You can watch the documentary on Youtube.  Here is a trailer for the film.

I first saw Anselm Kiefer's work sometime during the early or mid 1990's, either at the Cincinnati Art Museum or Atlanta's High Museum of Art.  I have always been attracted to his willingness to tackle the big subjects, life, death, and the possibility of re-birth as well as his use of mixed media and his painterly technique.  I also agree with Kiefer's stance on anti-art, that is he bemoans it, but acknowledges it's right to exist.  For these reasons I am happy to call Anselm Kiefer both an influence and an ally.

The Artist as Seer Shaman Healer Seeker Voyager Pioneer Visionary by Chris Hall

Many artists and art critics today have abandoned the notion that artists are somehow special.  Perhaps they are not special.  Instead, with art in the expanded field, we have artists taking on pedestrian pursuits – artist as scientist, artist as data collector, artist as food service, etc.  These artists do not soar . . . not like the old art heroes of old, anyways.  

What made these old artists special?  They were professional Shaman, Seers, Healers, and Seekers of ecstatic truths.  They were Voyagers, Pioneers, and Visionaries . . . Artists with a capital “A,” in service to the mystery.  The notion of the artist as Seer, in modern Western Art, dates back to the early German Romantics.  Before that it was championed by the Greeks who would use poetry, song, and art for magical and prophetic purposes.  Yes, artists are different from most people, at least that is the way it use to be.

Gordon Onslow-Ford:

The Unknown manifests itself through the open mind.

The closed mind is personal.
The open mind is impersonal.

When the mind opens, something original can come
In.  The open mind is not something that can be
Learned or switched on at will.  It happens naturally.

The Visionary Artist can access what some shamans call the Dreamtime, that is they can access realities where the past, present, and future co-exist simultaneously.   I often see this kind of vision manifested in work of the abstract expressionists.  Many lay people ridicule abstract expressionist work, claiming they can do the work themselves.  This is definitely not so.  It requires a certain type of vision that can not be taught, nor can the artist force the vision onto their work.  It is a gift and it happens, or doesn’t happen, naturally.  

“I say that the true artist seer, the heavenly fool who can and does produce beauty, is mainly dazzled to death by his own scruples, the blinding shapes and colors of his own human conscience.” J.D. Salinger

If there is a problem with abstract expressionist work, it is that it doesn't always translate to the audience.  Some people are just more sensitive than others.  Painting abstract expressionist work is the recording of an event, of a vision, more than it is a final product.  The modern artist uses the art making process to heal themselves, and if the end result, the finished painting, also heals an audience, so much the better.  The shaman, however, must use their art to heal their community.  Their work must translate their vision to a lay audience.  

The Seer by Alex Grey

From the caves of Altimira
To a New York studio,
The Seer has inspired the artist
With Vision’s unceasing flow.

The Seer is the soul of the artist,
Magus through ages untold,
Transmuting the lead of matter
Into bullets of spiritual gold.

The ego picks up the weapon of art,
Childlike, it plays with the trigger.
Blowing the head off it’s contracted self,
Awareness is suddenly bigger.
By slaying the ego and stunning
The chatter of thoughts as they rise,
Great art shuts out distractions
Delighting the heart through the eyes.

The Seer is the soul of the artist,
Revealing the Mystery as form,
Advancing our civilization
By inventing and destroying the norm.
The redemptive Sorceress, Art
Can heal the nausea of being,
Opening vistas of hope and beauty,
Revealing deep patterns of meaning.

The function of art is to stop us
And take us out of our skin,
Unveiling the spirit’s pure nakedness
Without beginning or end.

The Seer is the soul of the artist,
Gaze fixed on primordial perfection.
Radiance emerges from emptiness,
Each point of light etched with affection.

The boundless Void, open and formless
Is the basis of all creation.
Visions appear and then dissolve
Reinforcing this realization.

From beyond the vision descends
From within the vision arises
Coalescing in the divine imagination,
Source of continual surprises.

The Seer is the soul of the artist
The Maker is the artist’s hand
In the studio their conversations
Translate a timeless command.

These dialogues of Maker and Seer
Weave together matter with soul,
Consecrating the practice of art
As speech of the ineffable.

Art making transforms the artist,
And to any hearts truly under
Creation’s intoxicating spell
The Seer transmits holy wonder.